“Eight years seems like a nice, round number,” says Jeremy Crown. “That’s going to make running the store the longest job that either of us has ever had.”
Little Otsu will close its store on Valencia Street this December, to be replaced by a storefront for Scholar Match, an 826 Valencia-associated project that uses a Kickstarter-like model to raise grant money for students who need help paying for college.
McSweeney’s has held the lease on the building for as long as Little Otsu has been there — they got the space through a connection at The Believer. “It’s never been a traditional sublease arrangement,” Crown says. “It’s somewhat handshakey. Not that that’s a word. It’s more like having a roommate than having a landlord. We’re all in the same space at the same time. They literally have to walk through our store to get to their offices.”
It will be eight years since Crown and Yvonne Chen opened the store, on an impulse brought on by unemployment and an ardor for veganism. Visitors to the shop in those early days will recall that Crown and Chen were voluble and friendly in a particularly small-town way, and had a lot of opinions to share, especially as to the state of vegan food in the neighborhood. Working retail, says Crown, was fun. “If you own that store, there’s more joy in it. I just ran into two people at Cha Ya who used to come into the store all the time separately. I never even knew they were a couple. It’s so nice, these random relationships that you form.”
Every item in the shop had a backstory. The comic books were all personal favorites of Crown and Chen, who would recount the plots with little prompting. The music was from Zum, the Berkeley-based record label run by Chen’s brother. The yarn animals were made by a local music critic. The mitten things were made by a customer who worked a few blocks away. Customers became suppliers, and vice versa. ”We met all sorts,” Crown says. “I never realized how many tourists come through this city until I opened a store. We met people from all over the world. Celebrities. Strange people. Both.”
Gradually, they got into publishing. Vegan publishing — the inks were all vegetable-based. Lart Berliner, a 19-year-old from San Francisco who showed up one day with a sketchbook, began designing notecards and posters for the store. Oakland resident Chris Duncan designed a calendar. Jennie Smith, an artist out in the Richmond, designed a set of postcards, and then wound up exhibiting in the 2006 Whitney Biennale.
“We had talked for awhile about making a day planner,” says Crown. “It had always been a nonstarter. We talked about it, and never got around to it. And then we finally did it.” It turned out be such a success that it threatened the store.
“Even though going from vegan shoes to publishing seems strange, it felt great.” Crown says. In 2007 they decided to close the store, move to Portland and begin publishing full-time. Then they un-decided: the McSweeney’s storefront opened up, and the store was doing well enough that another person could, at least in theory, run it.
They’d never had an employee before, so they found two through friends of friends, and joined the great San Francisco-to Portland migration. “It’s very similar to San Francisco in many ways,” says Crown of Portland. “Politically liberal. Not many chain stores. But it’s more like a college town — like Minneapolis. Or what I would imagine Minneapolis to be, because I have never been to Minneapolis.”
The decision to close the storefront now, Crown says, is also connected to the rising cost of retail space on Valencia. Small spaces are so in demand that finding a comparable space would be a difficult proposition. Little Otsu will continue to exist, but only online — for now, at least. “So much of what we’ve done has consisted of being in the right place at the right time,” says Crown. “We’re just flying by the seat of our pants.”